RICO stands for the
Organizations Act, a federal law passed by Congress in 1970, initially to
fight the influence of organized crime (especially the Mafia) through
a specialized statute that severely punishes defendants committing criminal
acts that are part of a criminal organization. RICO was primarily aimed
at the upper echelons of organized crime who traditionally were insulated
from prosecution. The leaders of organized crime would give orders to
their subordinates but would never personally commit crimes and with the
Mafia's code of silence (Omerta) prosecution of the high-ranking leaders was next to impossible.
RICO provides harsh penalties for those persons who engage in a "pattern
of criminal activity" on behalf of an organization, an "enterprise."
A "pattern of criminal activity" is characterized by two or
more specified state or federal crimes committed within a prescribed period
of time. These crimes must be related to the "enterprise." An
"enterprise" is broadly defined to include legal entities such
as partnerships, corporations, associations and/or illicit entities or
RICO is part of the larger "Organized Crime Control Act of 1970,"
18 United States Code Section 1961 to 1968, which was a comprehensive
attack on the Mafia and other organized crime organizations of the time.
Its use has considerably broadened since then because RICO focuses on
"patterns of behavior," not just specific criminal acts. It
is used nowadays to prosecute drug crimes, arson, money laundering, bribery,
bankruptcy fraud, extortion, kidnapping, counterfeiting, insurance fraud,
bankruptcy fraud, securities fraud, obstruction of justice, gambling and
murder-for-hire. In fact, there are 35 requisite crimes that fall under
the RICO Act, 27 federal crimes and 8 state crimes.
Broadly speaking, racketeering is the act of operating an illegal business
or illegal services in order to make a profit. The RICO defendant and
the enterprise are not necessarily the same. A person who is a member
of an enterprise that has an effect upon interstate commerce and that
has committed any two of the 35 prerequisite crimes in a 10 year period
can be charged if there is any one of four specific relationships between
the defendant and the illegal enterprise (i.e. "racket"): First,
the defendant gained or maintained control or an interest over the enterprise
through a pattern of racketeering, or second, the defendant placed the
proceeds of the racketeering pattern into the enterprise; or, third, the
defendant participated in or conducted the affairs of the enterprise through
the pattern of racketeering activity, or fourth, the defendant
conspired to do one of the activities listed above. An individual harmed by a racketeering
activity can sue in civil court, where the damages are not capped.
The punishments for a RICO violation are harsh. Monetary damages can be
trebled (i.e. three times the amount of actual damages) in either civil
or criminal cases.
Assets can be seized that were obtained through a pattern of racketeering. Each count of an
indictment can result in 20 years in federal prison (which requires that
85% of the time sentenced must actually be served) and a fine of up to
$250,000.00. A life sentence can be imposed if the underlying crime is
punishable by a life sentence.
If you or someone you know is facing Federal RICO charges contact an experienced
criminal defense attorney to represent you in Federal court and learn
about your legal options.